It’s fortunate that MLK Day is in January, because it gives us a day, very early in the year, when we have the opportunity to reflect on our history here in Charleston and set our intentions for the year ahead. King’s day of commemoration reminds us all that there was a man who fought to end institutional white supremacy in the U.S. and he was subsequently rewarded for his troubles with a bullet.
We in Charleston have a particularly troubled relationship with histories like these. We live on land where people have enslaved other people, where people have massacred communities in order to take their land, and where people have died in the name of liberation and dreamed of freedom for their children. We live with this staggering history every day, and it is at once visceral, celebrated, and shushed.
But we sometimes forget that we walk the same streets walked by enslaved African people and the white men who claimed to own them. We sometimes forget that many of us are their descendants. We sometimes forget when we walk by Williams-Sonoma that before it was a kitchen store it was the location of the first Civil Rights-era lunch counter sit-in in Charleston. We forget how this current version of Charleston came to be, the centuries-long struggles, the erased people, the rice fields, the carnage, the resistance, the passing of time as slow as the hottest day in August.
I think that King’s legacy could hold something new for us this year. In the years shortly before his death, King had begun calling for something more than equal rights for African Americans. He had begun to see that the challenge ahead was not just charted along racial lines, but economic ones as well, and he called for black communities to begin organizing with working-class white folks. He had begun realizing that for true liberation to be achieved, people would have to begin to organize from the places where their individual struggles overlapped.
This idea, that no single injustice can be eliminated without also eliminating other injustices, has been talked about in many different ways by many different people. Dr. King once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and called on us to build a beloved community, where everyone would be valued, where every dream for the future would be considered.
My hope for Charleston in the year 2013 is that we will be able to live with the ghosts of Charleston’s past while still dreaming of freedom for our children and still working together to create new ways of living with each other on this contested ground. I hope the folks who call Charleston home will come to the drawing board and begin to envision a place where we all thrive. A place where every child has access to a good education. A place where workers are paid a liveable wage. A place where the elderly are cared for. A place where women and queer people are fully self-determined. A place where there is accessible mental healthcare. A place where the crimes committed against black and indigenous people on this land are finally reckoned with. A place where freedom fighters like Denmark Vesey are decorated with flowers instead of assassinated. And a place where we recognize that we need the earth in order to exist and treat it accordingly.
As public schools close, as the sea level rises, and with the Newtown, Conn., shooting fresh in our minds, it is not only possible, but crucial, that we begin working toward this together. And we are not without starting places.
As we ring in a New Year, commemorate Dr. King and watch as the first black president of the United States is inaugurated for a second term, let’s also begin having real conversations about how we can create a beloved community here in Charleston. What is at stake here? What are our wildest dreams for what this place could be? Let’s talk.